NC State Hosts Latin American Cochran Fellows for Sustainable Agriculture Immersion

WRITTEN BY: Matthew Burkhart (

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cochran Fellowship Program brought 17 fellows from across Latin America to NC State for two weeks in April for an immersive training on climate-smart agriculture practices and partnerships. The program aimed to equip fellows with knowledge and connections to drive sustainable agricultural development in their home countries.

Andrew Ofstehage, Global Academy Program Coordinator at CALS International Programs, explained that the Latin American Cochran Fellowship program focused on two key themes: climate-smart agriculture for adaptation and mitigation, and climate-smart partnerships between producers, industry, government and academia. 

“The importance is twofold in that you want to share policies and practices that are useful in combating climate change in their countries of origin — I think that’s the main goal of this program — we can provide the fun, and we can provide the knowledge and connections,” Ofstehage said. “The two really important things are the knowledge, the information, but also connecting them to researchers and connecting them with government organizations and with private organizations.”

Fellows underwent an application and interview process conducted by the USDA FAS in their home countries. Ofstehage said the selection criteria included the ability to meet program objectives and communicate proficiently in English.

The program began in Washington D.C., where fellows attended sessions focused on federal policies and programs supporting climate-smart agriculture. Andres Diaz, a fellow from Colombia’s National Planning Department, appreciated the opportunity to understand how the U.S. government incorporates such initiatives at the federal level.

“I work in the national level here in Colombia, so it was great to understand how at the federal level they are trying to include these kinds of initiatives in your country in order to try to understand how we can apply them in Colombia,” Diaz said. “We also visited some unions like the national farmers union — we have similar things in Colombia. So it was really great to see these kinds of climate smart initiatives from different perspectives like in the private sector, also the government’s vision.”

Lucia Sanchez, a professor and program coordinator from El Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, highlighted meetings with research centers studying crop biofortification and genetically modified organisms for food security. Interactions with farmer unions provided insights into the high demand for climate-smart agricultural programs among U.S. producers.

The program transitioned to Raleigh, where NC State faculty and industry partners shared innovative research and on-farm practices. Sanchez praised the academic depth, citing talks with researchers across various disciplines.

“There were researchers at NC State in different topics, some of them were biochemists or molecular biologists, so it was really in-depth, technical stuff,” Sanchez said. “We also had other researchers talking about economics and how impactful the different climate-smart practices are, and policy.”

Diaz appreciated being able to watch the implementation of climate-smart initiatives at the state and local levels in Raleigh, gaining a complete perspective of the climate-smart program.

“In D.C., we saw the federal perspective, but in Raleigh, we had the opportunity to learn the state’s vision — how they are trying to apply the federal policies in the state,” Diaz said. “It was great to see another perspective. We also had the opportunity to learn about the academic mission or perspective of climate-smart. We also had the opportunity to visit some farmers, which is great because you have the complete vision of the climate-smart initiative.”

Fellows visited local farms to witness climate-smart techniques firsthand. Ofstehage noted this hands-on experience complemented the scientific presentations, allowing fellows “to hear about what they’re doing on the ground on the farm, and what they’re actually seeing face-to-face.” 

Sanchez emphasized the value of interacting directly with farmers and producers.

“The other aspect in Raleigh is that we got the chance to actually talk to farmers, to producers,” Sanchez said. “That gave us the whole other perspective, because in DC, it wasn’t bad that we were talking basically with politicians, but it’s really different. The kind of information you get to ask them, and all the details that are involved.” 

Beyond the formal training, the program encouraged cultural exchange and relationship-building. In D.C., fellows explored iconic landmarks like the Capitol, White House and Smithsonian museums. Fellows also visited local landmarks such as the North Carolina Museum of Art, the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and the North Carolina State Farmers Market while in Raleigh. 

Ofstehage commended the cohort’s cohesion, noting the ease with which participants from multiple countries formed both professional and personal connections. 

“Everyone got along really well,” Ofstehage said. “People were making jokes and being really friendly, but also making professional connections.”

Diaz appreciated bonding with an “amazing group” from diverse professional backgrounds including public policy, agribusiness, academia and ecology, among others.

Sanchez emphasized the benefits of having a diverse group of fellows from various countries and backgrounds, highlighting how this diversity enriched the program.

The fact that we were all from different countries was a plus,” Sanchez said. “Latin Americans tend to bond really quickly. So the group dynamic was great, everybody had a good personality, and we were really proficient in talking and getting involved in the lectures, asking great questions for panelists. That was really enriching and engaging, but because maybe not all of us had great English capabilities … We helped each other.”

As the program concluded, fellows expressed enthusiasm about implementing their newfound knowledge and networks in their home countries. Diaz looked forward to applying knowledge from the USDA and NC State to public policy in Colombia.

For Ofstehage, the program’s true value lies in its reciprocal nature. “It’s a really great chance for NC State to learn from these fellows about local conditions,” he said, underscoring the importance of the two-way knowledge exchange.